WASHINGTON, D.C.—“To be honest, this was not the film I sought out to make,” journalist Jose Antonio Vargas explained. He wanted to make a film about young people like him who grew up American but are undocumented.
“But after sending a film crew to the Philippines to document my own mother, whom I haven’t seen for almost 20 years, the film took a different turn—I didn’t want it to go there but it had to go there.”
“Documented,” a deeply personal story of Vargas’ own journey to the US as an undocumented immigrant, had its world premiere here June 21 at the American Film Institute’s documentary festival (AFI Docs), America’s leading showcase for documentary film.
With immigration reform dominating the agenda in Capitol Hill these days, immigration reform advocates hailed the 90-minute documentary—written and directed by Vargas himself—as timely and relevant.
This “journey inward as he reconnects with his mother” offers a firsthand glimpse on how a broken system has profoundly affected the lives of 11 million human beings, tearing families apart, says Frank Sharry, an immigrant rights champion who has been at the center of every major legislative and policy debate related to immigration for many years.
“The film shows that at its core, our national debate is not about policy or politics but about our own morality and humanity as a people. It opens up hearts and minds and, hopefully, the possibility that we may yet solve one of the country’s most urgent and divisive issues.”
Attending the sold-out screening at the 400-seat National Portrait Gallery auditorium were immigrant rights advocates from across the country, congressional staff, public policy makers, members of national media, film buffs and Vargas’ own family from California, including his own grandmother who took care of him when he arrived in this country 20 years ago.
“I thank AFI Docs for showcasing my film as there’s a Senate debate going on right now about an issue that most people feel uncomfortable talking about,” Vargas said in his opening remarks. “It’s the riskiest thing I’ve ever done. But I also know that this is the only way to have impact.”
As founder of “Define American,” a nonprofit organization intended to open up dialogue about the criteria people use to determine who is an American, Vargas is seen in the film touring the country engaging people in a conversation about undocumented immigrants. “I’m not really coming out,” he said. “We’re just letting you in.”
The film showed clips of Vargas testifying at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which voted recently on a bi-partisan immigration reform measure that includes a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. It also chronicles his travels through 45 states as an advocate, talking to Mitt Romney supporters during the Iowa Caucuses and engaging a construction worker in Birmingham, Alabama, who told Vargas to “get the hell out” because he has no legal papers.
Most poignant segment
But the film’s most poignant segment was the scene where 32-year-old Vargas talked to her mother via Skype on Christmas Day last year. He was 12 years old when he left the Philippines and he hasn’t seen her since.
“Come home so we can see each other,” a tearful Emily Salinas, 56, begs her son. “Soon, soon,” he replies, breaking down in sobs, knowing that their reunion, like many other families, depends on the passage of the immigration bill working its way through Congress.
“I just want to be able to hug him like I did before,” she says after they hang up. “Even without words, I just want to embrace my child.” She talks about how “painful it was to be separated from Pepiton,” as she fondly called her little boy. “But I have to make the sacrifice so my son would have a better life.”
In her introduction to the screening, AFI Docs Festival Director Sky Sitney said: “We are honored to present this exceptional film, which took two years to make, as our centerpiece showcase. It touches deeply on the emotional core of our country’s identity. It confronts a critical issue that’s currently being debated, one that will surely prompt essential national conversations in the days and weeks ahead.”
Vargas received a standing ovation at the beginning and end of the film. He also entertained several questions during a panel discussion moderated by Juan Williams of Fox News.
Hours before the screening, Philippine Ambassador Jose L. Cuisa Jr., hosted a reception at the Philippine Embassy for Vargas and his extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins who came all the way from California. In his remarks, Cuisa commended Vargas for his writings and “touching articles” on important issues like immigration.
He noted that out of the 11 million undocumented immigrants, 2 percent, or 270,000, are Filipinos. “They don’t deserve to be mistreated,” Cuisa said. “They contribute to US society through their talents, expertise, persistence and hard work. And Jose Antonio Vargas exemplifies all that.”